The Art of the Americas collection provides unique perspectives into cultures and civilizations that thrived in the Western hemisphere long before the Spanish conquest. Most objects in these collections date between 200 BC and the mid-sixteenth century AD, with a strong focus in Mesoamerican and Andean art. Almost all of these ancient arts were used in religious or funerary contexts. General themes found in these works include human and divine rulership; the importance of ritual life; relationships between this life and the afterworld; shamanism (religious healing); and adoration of or curiosity about the natural world. These objects have survived the centuries because many are made of strong, permanent materials, such as stone or fired earthenware. Several examples of objects made of less durable media such as wood, feathers or fiber have also survived over the ages, due to a fortuitous burial location or dry climate.
As a result of the historic Harald Wagner Bequest, the de Young is home to the largest and most important group of Teotihuacan murals outside of Mexico. This windfall bequest transformed the museum and catalyzed a groundbreaking collaboration for the conservation of the murals over a ten-year period and precipitated the unprecedented, voluntary return of over two-thirds of the mural fragments to the nation of Mexico. Additional highlights from the Art of the Americas include Maya and West Mexico artworks generously donated by the Lewis K. Land family; an extraordinary bequest of exemplary Inuit and Eskimo art from the Thomas G. Fowler collection; and pueblo pottery from the Paul E. and Barbara H. Weiss collection.